Belated thoughts on the Hugo Awards 2016

The 2016 Hugo Awards for science fiction had their ceremony on 20th August. Last year I closely followed the awards, after reading news stories alleging that US conservatives were trying to keep women authors out of SF.

This year I didn't vote, but posted the video below on my Facebook along with the following comments:

For the sci-fi & fantasy book fans who've been following the Hugo Award controversy in the press in recent years, this is a video interview with Sad Puppy 4 organiser Kate Paulk. You may find it illuminating if you read about the 'sexist Puppies' - Kate is a woman.

Until last year, I believed the Hugo Awards represented the best of SF selected by a popular vote. I now realise that, before the Puppies, < 2,000 people nominated books and stories for the Hugos. Nominating figures are now ~ 3,000 for the most popular categories. 

Moreover, Worldcon itself (the convention that owns the Hugos) is a predominantly middle-aged, white, male American convention - I've seen the photos [NB: the last picture is taken in London, possibly the most ethnically-diverse city on the planet].

Many of the Puppies who were pilloried in the press for their 'racism' last year are more representative of today's America than the average Worldcon voter. Even the white male Sad Puppy authors, being often ex-military, tend to be (IMO) more likely to be married to black or Hispanic women - sometimes from outside the US.

The 'real' controversy over the Hugos, contrary to what's being reported, started as a clash between (often) self-published pulp authors from middle America and the New York literary set. Many of the former group were commercially-minded Republicans/Libertarians, writing for an US market, who have little interest in 'literary' or experimental writing. They felt pushed out of awards by an influx of short story writers with literary backgrounds and a (perceived) intellectual metropolitan outlook, whose work doesn't have the mainstream appeal of - say - Twilight.

Last year, the situation was complicated by Rabid Puppies, a coordinated voting effort by readers of alt-right blogger Vox Day. So few people nominate and vote in the Hugos that a single blogger can sweep entire categories. Vox Day is, as widely claimed online, a racist and white nationalist. He's also a geeky computer game designer with a similar taste in fiction to me whose small press Castalia House is publishing writers rendered mainstream unpublishable by their attitudes/views. Were he alive today, these would include H.P. Lovecraft, creator of the Cthulhu mythos, whose racism was extreme even for the time, but whose imagination and influence are unarguable.

In short, don't believe everything you read in the media. Journalists don't have much time to research these days, US politics is increasingly tribal, and the New York literary set have a good PR operation.

A Facebook friend asked me the question:

Do you think the Hugo is still a useful indicator of Sci Fi innovation and quality? If not, is there a better indicator? The Hugos have introduced me to some very mediocre writers, but in recent times also the likes of Paolo Bacigalupi who is a bit of a genius

I replied:

I like Paolo Bacialupi too (click for my favourite short story)! I don't think the Hugos are a useful indicator since 'geek culture' is now much wider than the voting/nominating pool of Worldcon. They do pick up innovation, but it's swamped by the groupthink effects of a small community, and swayed by the marketing efforts of big publishers trying to increase sales by scoring an award. The Martian (the book), for example, initially flew over the head of Worldcon fans because it was self-published and became a bestseller via word-of-mouth. The Nebulas strongly echo the Hugos, possibly because the same group of fans use the nominations as a guide on what to read.

Moreover, many younger SF&F fans tend to prioritise TV/film/comics/video games over books. Thus, awards given by pure literary conventions like Worldcon tend to be biased by the advancing age of the participants. The Dragon Awards _may_ be worth watching once they've got going, but were poorly advertised online this year, and dominated by fans of the authors who already knew about them (so the Puppies). I read and enjoyed the winners, but my taste isn't everyone's, as they tend to slant towards pulp thriller and adventure stories.

Finally, the Hugos were established in a period when SF was mostly short fiction. The market for short fiction is arguably abysmal - doesn't pay well, is mostly written by writers for writers, and has a strong slant towards 'literary' fiction by former MFA students. Thus, a high percentage of the award categories are for literature 'no one' reads.

For the moment, it seems that the best way to find enjoyable books is via word-of-mouth from people whose judgement you trust. So blogs, friends, social media, and using Amazon preview to sample books on recommendation lists.

As always, this is my opinion as I see it. Some backup sources are in the archives on this website as I did a fair bit of research into the Hugos last year.

Celebrating the National Dog Days of Summer - Links: 27/08

Big news this week: An Earth-like planet was spotted in our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, raising hopes of glowing aliens. Sci-fi author Stephen Baxter speculated on the prospect on life.

See also: the BBC with five (well, four) reasons to get excited about the find, and a cool graphic from Science.

In unconnected news, a Russian billionaire's plan to send a fleet of iPhone-sized spaceships to the system may be derailed by space dust.

Pioneers and the new space race

Oliver Morton thinks space is getting exciting again, as does the Washington Post with its feature on the billionaires racing to get us into space.

Meanwhile, the first-ever commercial moon landing was approved by the US government, and China unveiled a Mars probe for an ambitious 2020 mission.

When they get there, i09 reports on a study on terraforming Mars by giving it clouds.

Life: Redesigned

Are we on the brink of creating manmade life? Scientists have 'radically rewritten' the genetic code of Ecoli bacteria, paving the way for manmade lifeforms resistant to all known viruses.

Humans may one day regenerate our limbs by taking tips from Mexican salamanders, according to this cool-but-creepy science vid:

Our robot overlords

Awwww. People will lie to robots to avoid hurting their feelings, according to a study on a robochef with a sad face and a habit of breaking eggs. Regretful robots, say the researchers, could become the norm - to lessen human anger at their mistakes.

The Israeli Army has deployed what may be the world's first fully-autonomous military robots.

My fictional 'squidbots' took a step towards reality with the creation of a totally soft wireless robot. Unfortunately, it doesn't do very much...

Pure fiction

Hyper-intelligent spiders (in space) won the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award for British science fiction.

#Improvedbytheparticipantsgettingalife: The Hugo Award winners were also announced after the now-annual furore whereby alt-right games designer Vox Day gets ~300 of his blog readers to troll Worldcon, and the <2,000 long-time voters pretend they're important (yep, I'm biased).

Author of gay comic erotica Chuck Tingle, who's been trolling both sides after his spoof Hugo nomination for short story Space Raptor Butt Invasion, celebrated his award defeat with  Pounded in the Butt by my Hugo Award Loss.

Andy Weir, author of The Martian, is launching a short story collection on a new mobile appi09 have an excerpt.

Is Flowers for Algernon a sci-fi touchstone for the ethics of experimental biology? Ananyo Bhattacharya looks back in journal Nature.

Erm, and dogs...

Motherboard Vice has the incredible story of Strelka, one of the doggie duo who became the first Earthlings to orbit the Earth and live to wag the tail. Strelka went on to have a daughter, Pushinka who, after being gifted to US President John F. Kennedy, had pups with one of his dogs.